- Tue, 2011-09-06 13:34
Death In Vegas is the brainchild of Richard Fearless, whose sparse blend of rock and electronica established the band as a cult favourite during the late nineties and early noughties. Collaborations with iconic vocalists including Iggy Pop, Bobby Gillespie, Liam Gallagher and Jim Reid set DIV apart and prompted chart hits with Aisha, a Mercury Prize nomination and a strong, loyal fan base. After their fourth album, 2004’s Satan’s Circus, everything went quiet in the Death In Vegas camp as Richard upped sticks to New York, started a new band Black Acid and buried himself within a photography course...
Seven years later, Death In Vegas return with a fifth studio album, Trans-Love Energies. I Like Music spoke with Richard Fearless about returning to the fray, finding inspiration in photography, taking on more singing duties and growing up near the Kalahari desert.
"I Like Music because...it lets me escape." Richard Fearless, Death In Vegas
ILM: It’s been seven years since the last Death In Vegas album. How are you finding getting back into everything - releasing an album, doing press, setting up a live show?
Richard: Eeven though it seems like it’s been a break it’s not something that’s really stopped, because when I was in New York I had another band called Black Acid. So I was doing that and producing and touring, so I guess it’s just another chapter. I just moved away from Death In Vegas for a bit and it carried on. To be honest actually, this is the first interview that I’ve done this time around, so ask me that in three months time!
ILM: Talking of interviews, I read an interview in which you talked about rescoring surf films for the Barbican and how that project informed what might become a record. Did some of that material find its way into Trans-Love Energies?
Richard: No it hasn’t. When we rescored the films we went into the studio a few days later and recorded the new scoring. I never actually mixed that record, then I went and did the Black Acid record. The Barbican stuff is all mastered though. I’ve actually got another studio album and two other albums that I’ve got ready to come out. So no, they didn’t reach this record, but they’re all ready to go. Even though I’ve been away for a while, there’s this crazy back-log of work piled up, which isn’t a bad thing!
ILM: Are they scheduled for Death In Vegas releases, or will they be for other projects?
Richard: I think the Black Acid stuff is definitely going to come out after this album, and then the first film, and then I’m not actually sure what other one we’ll do. We’ll see what happens.
ILM: While in New York you did a course in photography, which I was interested to read was a big influence on this record. How did that feed into the process and inform Trans Love Energies?
Richard: It was down to the kind of work that inspired me as a photographer. The great American landscape photographers are quite inspirational to me, and the places that took me for my work – quite desolate, quite ancient – that beaten down, desolate side of America was inspiring. Film has always been an inspiration to my music as well. I try and create music with a lot of space that’s quite cinematic. When you have a lot of space in music it gives you a lot of room for visual ideas. I think refining your work as a photographer is the same as refining your music. When I write I start the process with a lot of visual imagery in front of me. I draw a lot of inspiration from that, whether it be my own work or other people’s work photographically. I guess it’s not really a conscious thing; it’s just something that happens.
ILM: Your own vocals feature more heavily on this record than ever before. How did that come about?
Richard: When I was at college in the States I had various things come up in my life… The situation got a bit heavy and my way of dealing with it was to try and focus on music as a creative process. I started doing music again and picked up the guitar for the first time, really. I stared writing some songs, and that was very different to the Death In Vegas process, which is very much a studio-based band. I started writing something quite different. Anyway, my kind of therapy at the time - or way of dealing with everything - was to churn out this music, and I sang for the first time because I was writing lyrics that were quite personal. In my head it was like, “right, there’s no pressure on this band.” At first I was going to get someone else to sing it. But then after a while I was like, “well I’m going through this process, I’m the one that is dealing with it and no-one can get that across the way I can.” So that was how I made the decision to sing. It wasn’t necessarily how I wanted to do it, but it’s how I felt I had to do it at the time.
ILM: You've worked with some incredible vocalists. Which have been the most memorable, the most inspiring?
Richard: Honestly, I think they were all quite different moments. You know, the first time I heard Bobby [Gillespie] do Soul Auctioneer, or when we were in Hendrix Studio in New York and recording with Iggy [Pop]… They were all really big moments. I don’t think any of them stepped up over any of the others. They were all pretty humbling positions to be put into.
ILM: What’s your song-writing process like? How do you go about moving from an initial idea to a finished track?
Richard: It’s either guitar-based or electronic-based, when I build it up from drum machines. Most often it tends to be very intimate and doesn’t happen for a while, then it just flies out, if that makes sense? Something will happen and you get fucked off, and you come in and you just sigh and sit down and pick up the guitar and all of a sudden you have three chords and then an idea. It doesn’t really come from anywhere; it just jumps out at you. The initial basis of coming up with each idea seems to be quite intimate and very quick. Then I have a tendency to put it down again. Some people can write very quickly, but if I hadn’t got told that I had to stop this record here I still wouldn’t think it’s ready to hand in! That’s definitely a problem. I could work on it for years and I’d be quite happy. To be honest that’s my favourite part of the process; actually creating. You know, I don’t massively enjoy any of the other parts…like touring.
ILM: Can you tell us about some of your preferred tools: software, hardware, instruments?
Richard: I’ve been mixing stuff in America in a studio in Michigan for the last six years on this mixing consol my friend has, which is Sly Stone’s old desk. As far as writing stuff goes, most of this record was written on analogue synthesizers and drum machines, like a Roland TR 909, Roland TR 808 and Roland SH 09. I’ve got a studio at Andy Weatherall’s. Well, Andrew’s my landlord. I’ve got a room next to him. It’s a small room where I’ve been collecting old drum machines and synthesizers. That’s kind of where I create all the stuff, and I mix it in America.
ILM: Death In Vegas have never seemed to actively pursue pop culture, but there have been times when your music has entered that realm, for example, when Aisha was a top ten hit. How have you found those dalliances with the mainstream world?
Richard: There was Aisha and Hands Around My Throat, which was also a top forty hit. I remember twice we did Top Of The Pops. We were about to do it for Aisha, which was a huge thing for us, but it was at the time that Harold Shipman – that serial killer; Dr Death – was being tried in court, and we got pulled because of our name and the lyrics of the track. We didn’t get the same play we thought we were going to get. So we’ve kind of had a few things that have knocked us back, but I guess it was due to context and subject. The band is a bit weird because it has a really quite loyal fanbase. For example, we haven’t really put anything out but the word about the new album has spread. I think we’ve always had that, which has been good. A bit of a chain of fans who spread the word. It’s never really been a mainstream thing; it’s been a bit of a cult. It would be great to have this record have some sort of recognition, but I guess that’s out of my control really. I don’t get too involved in that side.
ILM: It would just be a nice by-product of whatever happens…
Richard: I guess… back to your question… it’s not something I’m exactly searching for at the start of the project. If it was, I guess I would have done stuff like this but not taken seven years.
ILM: I understand that you grew up on the edge of the Kalahari Desert; what was that like? When did you get into music to start with?
Richard: I was born in Zambia and spent most of my childhood until I was 21 there and in Botswana. That was where I was on the Kalahari. I think it had a huge impact. We were talking about photography earlier on and obviously to grow up in an area where you had that expanse of space had an effect. The similarity with that was probably one of the things I loved about living in the States. Not so much living in New York, but getting out into the States where you had that expanse of light and open space. It’s not something you see as much living in England, I don’t feel. That’s something that has had an effect on me as a photographer, and what I’ve gone into film-wise and musically. I definitely think that’s something that has been an inspiration. But as far as actually growing up, my father and mother were very… they weren’t musical, but they were very into music. We didn’t really have TV. This was during apartheid and most TV was South African, so it wasn’t really of interest. It was very much about putting music on at home. My Dad had a really extensive record collection, a lot of jazz. My mum was definitely a lot more into African music, like Congolese, because we lived right on the border of Zambia and Zaire, which is the Belgian-Congo. I remember distinctly at a very early age this whole thing of it being dinner time and going to put a record on; me and my sister taking it in turns to pick records, trying to impress mum and dad with our choice!
ILM: Death In Vegas has a very distinct, immediately recognizable sound. How would you describe that sound?
Richard: I think it’s this certain side of my head that I just lock into, really. It feels like it’s very repetitious. There’s just something I search for when I’m trying to make music, and it’s like a moment. You’re trying to make that moment in a song where you get a kind of feeling. You know, you’ll be in the studio working on something and you’ll like it, but all of a sudden you do one thing and the song switches around, and you hit that special moment. It’s something like that I’ve always tried to search for in songs. And I guess it is spacing as well… the music is very repetitious and that comes from being inspired by Steve Reich and Terry Riley and Kraftwerk. For me it’s all about spacing and time, and creating space within the music. I don’t know, when I’m doing Death In Vegas I kind of think in a certain way and I can’t explain it really.
ILM: Could you tell us about the come-back single Your Loft? How did you pick it to be the first single? When did you write that song?
Richard: It was my manager that decided it would be the first single. The reference is to The Loft, which is where Chigago house music was born. I was trying to make a song that sounded like the classic old house music that inspired me. I had been looking for a female vocalist for a long time; keeping my eye out for someone who does something for me. I heard a really early version of Beat And The Pulse by Austra. I really liked her voice and I reached out to her and made it happen. She was a Death In Vegas fan, so that was fantastic.
ILM: I can still remember the first time that I heard All That Glitters, the very first track from Dead Elvis. Could you tell us a bit about writing that, as a parallel to Your Loft?
Richard: All That Glitters and that first Death In Vegas record was a massive learning curve. I was nineteen or twenty - around that kind of age - when I first started writing that record. I was at college and I didn’t have any knowledge about writing whatsoever. But I’d always been DJing, and I had an extensive musical knowledge, certainly in music that I was interested in. That’s where I came from, as a lot of people did. I guess the DJing made me understand sound and timing, but didn’t necessarily give me the technical skill to work in that field. So it was a big learning curve. Obviously a lot of it was sample-based and using drum-loops. When I listen to something like Your Loft I hear as a songwriter how I have so much more confidence in myself, in my sound. To make stripped down music hardly anything gets written, because it’s very bare. You have to be very confident in the sound that’s left there if you’re going to strip stuff out.
ILM: What would be your advice for younger musicians just starting out? Having got to this stage, what would you say to young people who want to create music?
Richard: What would I say? Fuck. I’m just thinking....long pause...I’ve got the last twenty years of my life flashing by me, and now I'm thinking “would I recommend this to anyone!?” I guess...you know, stay true to yourself. It’s hard, especially when you’re learning, to have that confidence to be unique and write in your style. You want to make something that sounds like the people and records that have influenced you. Pursuing your own sound is a really good thing. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Follow your gut instinct when you’re writing stuff and go with your own thoughts rather than thinking about what other people will be wanting to hear...
ILM: Just have the confidence to do what feels natural…
Richard: Most times you’re a good judge of what’s right and what’s wrong. I still do it… The second CD I finished right at the end (Trans-Love Energies is coming out in both single- and double-album formats) and I really just had no holds barred. Look at some great contemporary composers like Aphex Twin or Matthew Herbert; they’re just the kind of people who have done their own thing. I mean I’m trying to think of people who are quite commercial, not necessarily my favourite contemporary composers. But they are people who have very much just pushed their own thing.
ILM: What are your plans for the future. Is there anything else in the pipeline?
Richard: Well, as I said, I’ve definitely got quite a few albums backed up, so that’s a good start! There are a million things really. We’ll see how the next year works itself out, I guess. As a producer things have started to take shape. There have been so many people contacting me out of the blue on the back of this record. It’s weird, you don’t have anything for years and then … People think you disappear. I guess I did; in my own way I disappeared. But then you come back and all of a sudden things just come up.